Can The Billionaires Win?
4 Reasons Why Billionaire Candidates Are Doomed.
It’s been a sad week for Democratic party faithful. With Kamala Harris out of the 2020 presidential race, the field feels much older and more male.
What’s worse, the two newest candidates — billionaires Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer — seem to be buying their way into the race. It feels like a failure of democracy when billionaire men can fund their campaigns easily while experienced women cannot.
And yet if history is any guide, these billionaires will share the same fate as Sens. Harris and Gillibrand. For while there was a time when money alone could win elections, that time is past.
1 — Earned Media Beats Advertising
It’s estimated that the media gave Donald Trump over 2 billion dollars in free advertising for his 2016 presidential run. By constantly stirring controversy, Trump was consistently the most common name in news headlines. As others have noted, this “earned media” vastly outstripped his own ad spending and those of his political opponents.
As an illustration of the power of “earned media”, let’s look at the chart below. It graphs the issues that most voters thought of when asked about Hillary Clinton in 2017–18. As you can see, almost none of her advertised messages landed in the public consciousness. The myriad stories about her emails did.
This figure highlights the changing topics that Americans remember about Clinton July 2017-Nov 2018
It turns out that the news media is much better at creating and sustaining narratives than any team of political operatives. For this reason I’m skeptical that Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer can make headway with voters. Sure they may be spending money, but that money is a worth a fraction of what “free” news articles are worth.
If competing candidates can stay in the news cycle, they will get their messages across in a much cheaper and more effective way. Buying ads on CNN and MSNBC doesn’t work nearly as well as being covered by those networks.
2 — Being Boring Doesn’t Work
If earned media beats paid advertising, the smart candidates will ask themselves, “how can I get free media coverage?”. While it’s hard to say exactly what works, it’s clear that one thing doesn’t — being boring.
Again it’s instructive to look at Trump. He didn’t get all that free attention by talking like a normal politician. He used wedge issues and polarizing language so that news outlets had no choice but to cover him. Their readers demanded it. Even his most fervent opponents couldn’t help but click on articles with “Trump” in the headline.
Kamala Harris provides a nice contrast. She managed to stir a controversy or two, but for the most part her campaign was boring. Her Twitter posts were anodyne, her messaging was muddled, and her policy positions didn’t captivate voters. She tried to appeal to the left wing of the party by proposing new taxes and medicare-for-all, but her ideas were less radical and ultimately less interesting than those of her opponents. Socialist candidate Bernie Sanders and more moderate Elizabeth Warren constantly outflanked Harris. They did a much better job of connecting to working class voters and securing the small donations needed to fund a modern campaign.
3— Demographics Means that Socialism is Here to Stay
According to Pew research, millennial voters will climb to 27% of the electorate in 2020.
At the same time, these millennials will only have about 3% of the nation’s wealtOf all the contradictions in modern capitalism, this one may be the most stark. How can a generation coming into political power favor a system that has so clearly failed them. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the sorry state of Millennial finances means that “socialism” is here to stay.
It’s no surprise that socialist candidate Bernie Sanders is the most popular with young voters. According to the recent Quinnipac poll, Sanders is favored by 52% of Dems under 34. Will these radical young voters go for billionaires or for the candidates who attack them? The answer seems obvious.
Besides being boring, candidates Harris and Bloomberg have something else in common. They both lack empathy for the working class. Harris wanted to lock up single mothers with truant children, while Bloomberg thinks that raising taxes on the working poor is a good idea. I may be wrong, but I have a hard time believing that Democratic voters will support candidates who so clearly don’t represent their interests.
4 — Passion is the Real Predictor of Success
Instead of asking how Harris and Bloomberg are similar, we may ask instead, what do winners like Barack Obama and Donald Trump have in common? The two presidents are different in almost every way except one - they both had passionate supporters.
In 2008 Obama ran on a visionary campaign of hope and change. He was so successful at selling his ideas that students travelled to battleground states like Florida to get their grandparents to vote for him. Donald Trump in 2016 had a very different message. Still, his voter base was just as energized. They attended rallies in the tens of thousands and launched viral social media campaigns. If we look at the top political candidates in the last decade, we see that the number of Twitter followers they have is a good proxy for their success.
In the currency political age the most valuable asset is passion. Passion for a candidate leads to Twitter likes, social media mentions and news articles being written. Passion is what spreads candidate messages to voters. Passion is what drives fundraising and passion is what creates the demand for positive news. I believe that in 2020, it will be passion that wins the white house. Lucky for us, passion is the one resource that billionaires do not seem to have a monopoly on.
The ability to leverage passionate voters and a desperate news media is what launched Donald Trump into the White House. It’s this same passion and newsworthiness that has taken Democratic superstars like AOC from obscurity to 5.5M Twitter followers.
When everyone is connected by social media, we can all influence each other. We no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers to share stories, to raise money, and most importantly to get our voices heard. Kamala Harris had friends in the media, the party and the donor class. What she didn’t have was the support of the people. It seems to me that the billionaires entering the race will have the same problem. Perhaps going forward, politicians should learn from these failure and just listen to the voters.